(Oct. 9, 2020) The Ocean City Council got a refresher on the Maryland Open Meetings Act Monday and what constituted as a violation.
“I would like [city legal counsel] Heather [Stansbury] to give a brief explanation of emails, texts and the [Maryland] Open Meetings Act,” Councilman Tony DeLuca said.
“We should talk about it right now, because the public should know how limited we are able to communicate and how a lack of communication just paralyzes this group,” Councilman John Gehrig said.
Stansbury said that the act requires all work-related discussions between elected officials to be conducted publicly when a quorum is involved. That means no form of communication is allowed if the public isn’t privy to it and enough officials are involved to vote on it.
Over the years, Stansbury said the act has become more and more strict. As part of the act, the council is required to publicly announce the meeting and to publish agendas within a timely manner, so the public can know what is being discussed, how the decision is made and to participate in the process if it so desires.
“The act expressly frowns upon, except for in limited situations, the communication by email or by text as it would run afoul to what I just said,” Stansbury said.
The proper protocol would be to contact the city manager or council president and ask for that topic to be placed on the next meeting agenda.
After claiming the mayor and council had been conducting such business via group phone calls for quite some time, Gehrig asked Stansbury if the act could be circumnavigated by simply sending one email at a time.
Stansbury said the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board looks at the intent of such actions.
“Given the context in which the question was asked I would advise against it,” Stansbury said.
She then clarified that the act only applied if the council were to discuss business, but Gehrig seemed to remain confused as to what constituted as a violation, giving the example of council members going out to dinner or wishing each other a happy birthday.
“Basically every action we take together outside of saying happy birthday is a violation of some stupid rule that some body just arbitrarily passed,” Gehrig said.
Other councilmembers did not seem to share Gehrig’s sentiment.
“I think where we go amiss is when we start to communicate with each other, when it goes from [a] one-way to a two-way [conversation],” Councilman Dennis Dare said. “I know that Councilman Gehrig has been upset at times about [how] he sends us information, his thoughts and we don’t respond. The reason I don’t respond is because I believe it to not be in accordance with the Open Meetings Act.”
Councilman Mark Paddack took issue with Gehrig’s example of councilmembers going out to dinner to discuss business, which he claimed had never occurred.
“When I was elected to the council in November of 2018 … I was told by Mayor Rick Meehan that we don’t talk shop when we’re out having dinner,” he said. “I’ve been out with other council members after meetings and we don’t talk shop and I’m not going to allow you to make that inference publicly without some evidence...”
Gehrig said he had been speaking hypothetically.